Saturday, February 2, 2008

The lotus blooms in the murky water

One of the difficult things about any teaching is applying the lesson to real world events. This is especially true of (but not exclusive to) Buddhism and its emphasis on suffering. It can be hard, for example, to reconcile the idea that while we are limited beings bound by the choices we and other make and while we are capable of committing acts that can readily be labeled as "evil", we are all interconnected and have the capacity to awaken to our potential for realizing our fundamental union with "boundless wisdom and compassion". There are a number of ways the subtlety of such a teaching can be expressed. I have, in my deficient way, treaded this topic from time to time in the reflections I share here. But can such lessons really take hold if they are contemplated in a strictly academic or philosophical way?

How, for example, do you react to the following recent news stories (both attributed to the AP):
Haiti’s poor resort to eating mud as prices rise
Cookies made of dried yellow dirt become sustenance, livelihood, concern

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti - It was lunchtime in one of Haiti's worst slums and Charlene Dumas was eating mud.

With food prices rising, Haiti's poorest can't afford even a daily plate of rice, and some take desperate measures to fill their bellies.

Charlene, 16 with a 1-month-old son, has come to rely on a traditional Haitian remedy for hunger pangs: cookies made of dried yellow dirt from the country's central plateau...

full article
Women 'tricked into suicide blasts'

Two women suicide bombers who have killed nearly 80 people in Baghdad were Down's Syndrome victims exploited by al Qaida.

The explosives were detonated by remote control in a co-ordinated attack after the women walked into separate crowded markets, said the chief Iraqi military spokesman in Baghdad General Qassim al-Moussawi.

Other officials said the women were apparently unaware of what they were doing in what could be a new method by suspected Sunni insurgents to subvert toughened security measures.

More than 70 people died and scores were wounded in the deadliest day since the US "surge" of 30,000 extra troops were sent to the capital this spring.

In the first attack, a woman detonated explosives hidden under her traditional black Islamic robe in the central al-Ghazl market. The weekly bazaar has been bombed several...

full article

Sometimes when I consider the idea that nirvana and samsara are not separate, it is seems pretty clear. Other times, such as after reading stories such as these, my appreciation of that teaching can get muddy again. Yet it seems to be a pretty important part of (at least) the Mahayana form of Buddhism.

The teaching could mean that the two words are synonyms, such as how "cool" and "hot" have both come to have a similar meaning in slang as terms even though there initial meanings, referring to temperature, are opposites. That does not appear to be the case. It could refer to the idea that suffering and compassion are aspects of the "conditioned" realm of form (the historical dimension of time and space governed by causality) which springs from and returns to the unconditioned realm of Ultimate Reality. Nirvana is frequently associated with such an unconditioned state of infinite potentiality, which is also translated as emptiness. Yet as we are reminded by many Buddhist sutras and commentaries, form and emptiness cannot and do not really exist as separate places or things.

For whatever it may be worth coming from an amateur lay Buddhist, I think this second meaning is correct, but it needs more unpacking. After all, what does such an interpretation give us? An explanation for why such things happen? A consolation for when such things happen? A course of action to prevent or to respond to such things before or after they happen? I cannot give you full and complete answers to any of these questions, but here is what I have to share with you as you ponder such things yourself.

To begin, there is no denial here that tragedy occurs or that we tend to be the primary source of our own suffering. Nor is there any denial that our experience of our existence contains pleasure and pain, joy and sorrow, hope and regret. Nor does following Buddhism mean that you will be free from physical pain, or from seeing your loved ones die, or from your own physical death. Ironically, while Buddhism speaks about freedom from these things, it does not mean we will never become ill and that we and all our friends will live in the same youthful human bodies forever. This kind of escape from birth and death is viewed strictly from the historical dimension and could indicate an "attachment" to form.

But if people are still going to be physically born, (possibly) grow up, have injuries and illness, and die, then what they heck was the Buddha talking about when he spoke of liberation? One view is simply annihilation. You have been reincarnated physically in many bodies over and over through history, and you want out, so you attain liberation and poof, none of the new kiddos in the maternity ward are going to be "you" reborn. Another view is that, from the perspective of Ultimate Reality, the "distance" between two moments, measured in time and/or space, is just a convention of limited beings living in the historical dimension. Hence, while we may think of ourselves as being born, growing up, and dying, from the Ultimate view one might be able to say "I was born/I am being born/I will be born" to refer to that moment, as perspective would be relative. In that case, liberation could be a case of adopting this broader view in which any moment, real or imagined, is never really gained or lost.

One could even take some combination of these, as per the movie Groundhog Day (1993). Only in this case one is living the same life over and over until they wake up. But amidst all this metaphysical speculation, the question still remains, of what use is the teaching that nirvana and samsara are not separate? Perhaps someone who has "gone beyond, gone all the way beyond" could tell us which of these metaphysical scenarios is closest to the truth (if any), but what good is a teaching that you have to already be a fully realized Buddha to use?

I think a key to unlocking the significance of such a teaching can be found in an interpretation of a wisdom saying given in the New Testament by Jesus. It is the parable of the leaven. In the book Manifesting God (see my review), Father Keating relays this short parable, in which Jesus says "The kingdom of heaven is like leaven [or "yeast"] that a woman took and mixed with three measures of wheat flour until the whole batch was leavened" (Matthew 13:33). Leaven was moldy bread and was understood by Jesus' audience to symbolize corruption. The measure used was also significant to Jewish history and symbolism. In effect, according to one view of this parable, what Jesus is saying is that the Kingdom of God can be found in a huge pile of corruption, decay, and decadence. Or to be more blunt, it can be found in the seediest, seamiest, most vile places you can imagine (i.e. even in the darkest of hearts).

This addresses the issue we could call the fallacy of purity, which is related to a kind of spiritual materialism. That is, this interpretation of the parable of the leaven suggests it is a mistake to think that the Divine is limited to people and places and circumstances we may consider to be "pure". In fact, Jesus himself ate with the most notable forms of sinner and the most unpopular types of people of his day (which indicated, from what I've read, that he indentified himself with such people). He is quoted as saying “The kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation, nor will people say, 'Here it is,' or 'There it is,' because the kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:20-21). And of course, Christ on the cross is the ultimate symbol in Christianity of the solidarity of God with human weakness and failing. In Buddhism, I think the teaching that nirvana and samsara are not separate performs a similar function. That is, just as Jesus taught that the Kingdom of God is within us, the Buddhist teaching about nirvana tells us that our destination as aspiring Buddhas-to-be is here and now. That Buddhanature is always "here and now", whatever form "here and now" happens to be taking at a particular moment. That we have all the capacity for the insight and love of a Buddha, but simply don't realize or accept that fact because of our delusions.

It also suggests that we don't realize our liberation in a strictly physical or even metaphysical sense, at least not in some kind of transcendence to another plane of existence. Our own finite nature (including all of its flaws) is can serve as either an obstacle to or the reality underlying our transformation. On a personal level, I think it is about non-discrimination and always finding a way to be grateful for whatever enters your life (and in turn use it in fulfilling the ones Bodhisattva vows). Rather than reacting based on habit or conditioning, and in turn running up a new karmic tab and clinging to optimistic or pessimistic expectations, we can take things as they come and make the best of any situation. This does not imply, by the way, mindless passivity or lack of planning, but rather letting go of (unrealistic) expectations, not efforts.

To echo the story of the Taoist farmer, an event that seems tragic or wonderful from one perspective can then appear to be the opposite from another perspective. By simply accepting whatever "karmic" consequences (seemingly positive or negative) that come our way and then trying to use them for the benefit of ourselves and especially of others, one can become liberated from unrealistic expectations and the resultant dissatisfaction that follow. Free to accept our limited self for what it is even as we tap into that boundless reservoir of wisdom and compassion. Free from the existential angst of gain and loss which drives our worries and fears over illness, old age and death. To quote Eric Idle, "You come from nothing, you go back to nothing. What have you lost? Nothing!" This quote works well in addressing the error of seeing our finite existence as a separate, intrinsic self. Indeed, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. In letting go of such attachments, one does not embrace nihilism but rather accepts being connected to the foundation of reality and existence (see here). In other words, such a statement need not be seen as fatalistic, nor does it justify complacency toward the suffering of others (see here).

Which brings us back again to what, if anything, we should make of human cruelty, human stupidity, human arrogance, etc. in light of the teaching about nirvana and samsara being the same (or vice versa). It tells me if the present is all we have, and if Bodhi/Nirvana can be attained, where else would it be? In the future? In some other place? Of course not. It tells me that if we see nirvana as a reward or a place where there is no violence, greed, hatred, etc, then we are missing the point. It tells me that it is possible to learn to use any circumstance in our lives as an opportunity to gain empathy, to demonstrate compassion, and to awaken to our greater nature as human beings in the midst of the turmoil of life (and to help others to do the same by our example). It tells me that the teachings of the great spiritual masters are not about pie-in-the-sky blissed out transcendence (although not all transcendence is of that nature, i.e. awakening to our greater nature) but were concerned with the stark reality of human failings. It tells me all of that and more, if we take the teaching seriously, but what is the applicable lesson? I am not trained or ordained, so I am sure you could get better answers to that question elsewhere. Perhaps such formal teachers would let their audience contemplate it in their own way. That is probably best. But since I am sharing, not teaching, here is what I "get" as the take home message as regards the monumental suffering and tragedy we see and hear about on a regular basis:

If one accepts teachings such as non-self and dependent co-arising, is it really possible to actualize the teachings of the Buddha and not realize/act as if you are aware of your intimate interdependence with all other phenomena (including sentient beings)? If one actually realizes the connection expressed the idea that nirvana and samsara are the same, rather than just giving an intellectual assent to the notion of such interconnection, could one then fail to be compelled to act? Even if circumstances prevented such action, or even if one "chickened out", wouldn't one still feel that tug to act? I believe that those who fully embrace such a realization would have to act. As some sutras and commentaries say, one would simply do what needed to be done in each situation (as per one's capacity).

I myself don't really get it or fully realize/embrace the implications. I like to read about it, even to write about it, etc. But I confess, I just don't really get it. Maybe it's because I want a resolution to some of the metaphysical debates mentioned above before I can truly commit to such teachings. Maybe it's because these teachings and the liberation they offer are just academic to me rather than something of vital importance. Or maybe I'm just a truly selfish jerk. (Of course those options aren't mutually exclusive). As I've written before, we keep making the process of awakening for ourselves by adding our own expectations and complications. Even reading what I've read above, one could say "Sheesh, you've just answered your own questions! Why are you still so entangled in all this other nonsense?" Ahh, but that's the pernicious nature of the self-made trap. So I keep looking, I keep paying attention to human tragedy and holding up any and all solutions and teachings concerning suffering to the messy, painful reality we find ourselves in. Some days the teachings are so crystal clear and powerful, and then it's back to the murky confusion of my own pre-occupations.

How about you? Are you a lotus blooming in the murky water? Do the stories above move you out of elaborate spiritual narcissism or cause you to sink further into it?

edit: This post was written on 2/2/08 but wasn't "published" until 2/7/08.

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